James A. Garfield was the second U.S. president to be shot while in office, but his death was a matter of malpractice. “American Experience: Murder of a President” is based on Candice Millard’s best-selling book, “Destiny of the Republic,” and argues that it was not the man who shot Garfield who eventually killed him.
Perhaps what is most shocking for modern audiences is that after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, the president did not have a regular bodyguard. Garfield was the 20th president (Lincoln was the 16th). He took office in March of 1881, but was shot on July 2, 1881 by someone whom he had previously met and who had frequented the White House. His assassin, Charles Guiteau, was an attorney who had done some minor campaigning for Garfield and felt that he deserved a presidential appointment, specifically an ambassadorship to Paris.
Guiteau had opportunities prior to the shooting, including once when he declined to shoot Garfield in front of his wife, Lucretia, who was recovering from an illness. When he finally did get the opportunity, Guiteau shot Garfield twice. Although there was a doctor almost immediately at the scene, the medical practices of the time put Garfield at risk. The concept of sanitary methods were not accepted by the initial doctors resulting in the wound in Garfield’s back being probed by unwashed fingers and medical instruments. Far worse, an acquaintance of Garfield’s, Dr. Doctor Bliss, took over as Garfield’s personal physician and in increasingly desperate actions, gave Garfield treatment that was considered subpar for that time.
Directed by Rob Rapley, the documentary features re-enactments with Shuler Hensley as Garfield, Kathryn Erbe as his wife and Will Janowitz as Guiteau as well as archival materials. Millard also appears along with Kenneth D. Ackerman (author of “Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield”), chief of interpretation and education at the James A. Garfield National Historic Site, Todd Arrington; historian Kathryn Allamong Jacob (“Capital Elites: High Society in Washington, D.C., After the Civil War”); park ranger at the James A. Garfield National Historic Site Mary Lintern; Professor of History at Boston College Heather Cox Richardson (“To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party”) and Professor of History at Stony Brook University Nancy Tomes (“The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women, and the Microbe in American Life”).
One aspect of this “American Experience” episode is that the medical history portion helps inform viewers of another PBS program: “Mercy Street.” The concepts of germs was not accepted during the Civil War and for some time after.
While many scholars believe that Guiteau was insane, either schizophrenic or suffering from syphilis, he did make an accurate statement during his trial, saying, “The doctors killed Garfield, I just shot him.” Watching “American Experience: Murder of a President” will make you thankful for the progress we’ve made in healthcare.
The two-hour “American Experience: Murder of a President” premieres on Feb. 2, 2016 at 9 p.m. on PBS (Check local listings). Afterward, it will be available online at PBS.org.